Overcoming My Childhood Fear of Spiders

Banded argiope, Argiope trifasciata

Banded argiope, Argiope trifasciata

When I was a kid, I was scared of spiders.  As great as my parents were about letting their kids explore the world and letting us develop our own opinions about the organisms we encountered, I think my fear of spiders was largely my dad’s fault.  He still tells me stories about how our house would have been “overrun with black widows – overrun!!” if he hadn’t hauled a can of Raid out into the backyard and sprayed the heck out of every black widow he found once a week.  He talked about the sun spider (not a true spider, but still an arachnid) in the laundry closet with a hint of fear and has told me the story of my first encounter with a spider several times.  It goes like this.  One night, I called out to my dad, telling him that there was a spider in my crib.  He looked around and didn’t see anything, so he told me I was dreaming and should go back to sleep.  A few minutes later, I called out again, saying that there was a spider in my bed.  He looked again and still didn’t see anything.  I kept insisting there was a spider, so he eventually started pulling off blankets to prove that there was no spider.  Of course there was a spider, THE BIGGEST BLACK WIDOW OF ALL TIME!  Or at least that’s how my dad tells it.  You’d think this spider was about to devour his beloved firstborn, that I was lucky he was there to save me and vanquish the black widow foe.  He wouldn’t ever admit it, but these sorts of stories have led me to believe that my dad might have a touch of arachnophobia.

Long jawed orb weaver spider

Long jawed orb weaver spider, Tetragnatha sp

When my dad, who is rather fearless and tells stories of brave encounters with rattlesnakes and an angry swarm of yellow jackets, actually showed any sort of fear, it sort of rubbed off on you.  So, I was scared of spiders too.  I remember growing up thinking that most spiders were dangerous, that killing a spider was better than risking being bitten.  I used to be so scared of spiders that I’d have nightmares about them lurking menacingly under my blankets.  I would wake up in a panic and start ripping off the covers to prove to myself that there wasn’t actually a spider in my bed.  I knew there wasn’t a spider in my bed, but then again…  My dad had told me that story about the black widow in my crib, so maybe my subconscious mind was trying to tell me something…

Crab spider

Crab spider, species unknown

As I became more and more interested in insects, I learned that the vast majority of spiders really weren’t going to hurt me.  I knew that the wolf spider crawling up the wall or the little harmless brown spiders in the basement weren’t going to do anything to me, but the fear persisted.  I felt a little stupid for being scared of spiders when I wanted to become an entomologist because what entomologist worth her salt is scared of a little spider?  But I couldn’t help it.  They bothered me.  So, I arrived at grad school in the city of my birth imagining that black widows lurked in every corner and I would have daily encounters with all manner of huge spider.  Every now and again I would envision a spider crawling up the back of my couch while I was doing homework or something and it would make me shiver just a little.

crab spider

Crab spider

So, how did I get over my fear of spiders?  It all started on a class field trip along the border with Mexico that where there was a series of little ponds.  The desert is, by definition, a dry place where water is scarce.  Ponds are important to a huge variety of animals and there are often animals at any little pond you come across.  I wandered around one of the ponds looking for aquatic insects and happened to look down at one point.  The ground was absolutely covered in spiders!  Many different species were writhing about in a huge mass over the shores of the pond.  They were crawling all over my legs and I was scared at first.  But…  I also really wanted to scoop insects out of that pond.  So, I decided to ignore the spiders and keep collecting.  I let the spiders crawl all over my legs.  I let them crawl all over my backpack.  I didn’t worry about the fact that I might find a spider, dead or alive, in my pack when I got home.  I just went on with the more serious business of climbing into the pond to collect aquatics.  I wasn’t about to let some weenie little harmless spiders get between me and the aquatic insects in that pond!

Green lynx spider

Green lynx spider, pink phase (Peucetia viridans)

And you know what?  That was the end of my fear of spiders!  I don’t know how or why it worked, but I told myself to ignore the spiders and suddenly they stopped bothering me.  No more spider nightmares!  They can crawl all over me at those desert ponds and I don’t care.  Black widows are beautiful spiders and I love to watch them.  I enjoy seeing the big orb weaver spiders when I’m in the sorts of habitats where they’re found.  Sun spiders – spectacular animals!  And who doesn’t love a good jumping spider?  I might not pick spiders up, just in case I misidentify one I shouldn’t handle or have a strange reaction to tarantula hairs (those things make me itch like mad!), but I’m perfectly okay with spiders living in and around my house.  Sometimes I knock their webs down as I dust, but otherwise they’ve got a pretty good thing going living with me.  I just don’t care that they’re there.

All in all, I am happy I went on that field trip.  Forcing myself to walk through the spiders to get to the pond seems to have done me a world of good.  Now, if only I could get over my fear of centipedes…

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19 thoughts on “Overcoming My Childhood Fear of Spiders

  1. Then the best way to cure my fear of wasps is to… uh… You know, nevermind, I think I’ll just continue having a healthy respect for our hymenopteran allies from a distance. They like me better that way anyway. : – )

    • Ha ha! Yeah, don’t go wandering out into a swarm of wasps. I wouldn’t recommend that one. Unless, of course, you’d like to swap stories with my dad. The story I referred to in the post is quite impressive and involved him being stung MANY times. Don’t be like my dad. :)

  2. This was great! Tho I have never been scared of spiders, my mother had one called elizabeth who lived in the laundry and woebetoide anyone who disturbed her web. Lovely piece of writing.. c

  3. I agree with your parent-influence hypothesis (although chimpanzees, it seems, have an innate fear of snakes, not learned). My fear, I’m sure, stems from my mother. I am way better than I used to be, and I find I am better still when I am around other people. Perhaps this has something to do with not wanting to appear afraid in front of others.

    • That’s a great idea! I find that I am able to get over most of my fears and squeamishness when I’m out in the field with my students much better than when I’m out there alone. I certainly don’t want to look wimpy in front of my undergrads! :)

        • I’m not sure they can actually kill a person, but they can make you pretty sick. There are a lot of myths about the giant centipedes, so it’s hard to figure out what’s real and what’s an exaggeration. We’ve got them here too and I know they can cause some damage to your tissues and blistering around the bite, but it’s very rare for you to hear about someone actually dying from a centipede bite. Still, best to leave them alone. I personally have absolutely no problem with that! :)

  4. Pingback: dead spider days « The artful abuela

  5. The way I was able to loose my fear of spiders was studying them. At an amateur level, but still sty«udying them.

    Learning their names, habits and habitats made me gradually lose my fear.

    • That didn’t really work for me as I was trying to learn about them and was still scared, but Io’m glad it worked for you! I hated being so scared of spiders because there really are so few of them (in the US at least) that can actually do anything bad to a person.

  6. I love this story! It’s true; exposure is the best medicine. It’s even almost working on my husband, with all the spiders that make their way through our temporary in-house zoo.

    And can I say I’m just loving your photos lately? That argiope is fantastic, the way the legs are coming right at us on the long-jawed orbweaver is amazing, and I’m still jealous of the pink-phase lynx.

    • Aw, thanks Kim! And those photos are actually pretty old, all taken on my old Nikon Coolpix 995 that I got rid of 3 years ago now. I just haven’t ever had a reason to post spider pics before I started doing Spider Sunday, so I’ve been shuffling through them a lot recently. I need to get back on G+… I miss it!

  7. Yes, I too found I lost my fear through photographing them. The first few times I photographed some of our large orbweavers it was a hot September day, yet getting close enough for the macro shots gave me the chills. Last summer I had a crab spider and an orbweaver in my own yard, and liked to check out their progress throughout the summer. I still hate seeing large spiders in the house, but I’m not so afraid of them outside anymore.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think photography will cure my other phobia – heights!

    • Ooh, yeah! Photographing things is a GREAT way to get over fears, at least in my experience. Glad to hear it’s working for you on your arachnophobia! I think you might be right about the heights though.

    • Really? I’m quite happy to love dragonflies and have a fear of centipedes. I know it’s not going to help, but dragonflies are harmless! They might be scary, but at least they won’t do anything to you.

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